Could Santorum Win Big?

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THE STUMP JANUARY 3, 2012

Could Santorum Win Big?

So everyone more or less agrees on the storyline heading into caucus night: Romney is clinging to a narrow lead, though there are doubts about whether he can break out of the mid-20s, which he’s never really surpassed either in Iowa or nationally. Ron Paul is near Romney at the top of the field, but is widely regarded as a sideshow: He draws heavily from young voters, most of whom will either turn out and vote for him or not vote at all. That leaves Rick Santorum, whom everyone agrees has the wind at his back. The latest polls have him in striking distance of Paul and Romney. Depending on how windy it gets, he may have a chance of winning outright. Herewith, a few further thoughts to set the stage for tonight:

First, the Santorum-Romney dynamic is obviously the one to watch. The conventional wisdom is that, to be competitive, Santorum must consolidate the social conservative vote that he and Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry had been splitting. That’s still true, as far as it goes. But his potential is actually a lot higher than this suggests. If you look, for example, at Tea Party voters, who tend to be more concerned about the size of government than social issues, Santorum is now leading. According to the most recent PPP poll, he pulls down 23 percent of that group to Newt Gingrich’s 18, Paul’s 16, and Bachmann’s 15. If, say, Gingrich supporters bolt, Santorum could see growth in the final 24-48 hours. 

Second, there’s always been a certain subset of Iowa conservative that backed Romney because they thought he matched up best against Barack Obama, not because they loved him. As that subset increased in the last few weeks, Romney moved into the lead—last week’s NBC/Marist poll reflected this. But the problem with supporters who don’t love you is that they can just as easily un-support you when they find someone to love, at least when that someone starts to look plausible. 

Which means Santorum may not be drawing just from the anti-Romney portion of the Iowa electorate; he may be poaching from Romney, too. In the latest PPP poll, 26 percent of Romney supporters actually list Santorum as their second choice. That gives Santorum a chance to do more than just eke out a win or close second in Iowa. If things break right, he could actually win by a comfortable margin, dealing Romney a humiliating blow. 

Third, a lot of people have wondered what happens if Romney wins Iowa without breaking 25 percent. Does it count as a win? Or do people quickly point out that he’s exactly where he finished four years ago, and where he’s maxed out in national polls this year. But here’s a more depressing thought for Team Romney: What if he wins with even less support than in 2008? The last PPP poll suggests this is entirely possible, showing Paul, Romney, and Santorum bunched up at 20, 19, and 18 percent. This does not strike me as a momentum-building result for the ostensible frontrunner. 

Finally, given Romney’s vulnerabilities in Iowa, one has to wonder: What on earth is Jon Huntsman thinking? The quirky-but-loaded former Utah governor has, as we all know, staked his entire campaign on New Hampshire. After months of pounding the pavement there, he’s still languishing in single digits, according to one recent poll. At this point, his campaign has mostly become an effort to kneecap Romney, whom Huntsman seems to loathe, and who has become the target of a super PAC funded by Huntsman family money. (The ads have derided Romney’s “chameleon”-like qualities.) 

Fine—the Hunstmans can spend their money however they want. And Romney is clearly bad news for Huntsman, who seems to be eyeing another run in 2016. (Even if Romney loses to Obama, that would make it hard for another Mormon moderate to win the GOP nomination four years later.) But if the Huntsmans really wanted to hurt Romney, shouldn’t their super PAC have run ads in Iowa rather than New Hampshire? With Romney consistently 25-30 points ahead of his nearest competitor in New Hampshire, the only way to trip him up there is to first trip him up in Iowa, where he just happens to be in a dogfight. The pass the Huntsmans have given Romney in Iowa is one of the most mystifying developments of the last few weeks. 

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posted in: the stump, politics, barack obama, jon huntsman, michele bachmann, rick perry, rick santorum, ron paul, iowa, new hampshire

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